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Erdogan’s great game: The Turkish problem on the EU’s doorstep

This is the second part of a series exploring Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions. The first part of the series is Erdogan’s great game: Soldiers, spies and Turkey’s quest for power

Recep Tayyip Erdogan almost walked away from the EU before Turkey’s effort to join it had officially begun.

In Brussels for an EU summit decision on whether to launch accession talks with his country, Turkey’s president was furious at the preconditions. “I got a message that he had sent word to the airport: ‘start the engines, we are going home’,” recalls Peter Westmacott of the December 2004 showdown, which he attended as British ambassador to Ankara. He remembers frantic efforts involving Tony Blair, then the UK’s premier, to “unscramble” the dispute. The Europeans managed to assuage the Turkish leader’s concerns and within a year negotiations had begun.

More than a decade and a half later, Mr Erdogan’s Turkey is further away than ever from joining the EU. After the bloc’s leaders last month ordered the preparation of new sanctions against Ankara over a dispute in the Mediterranean, relations have lurched into deeper crisis, without an obvious plan for how to revive them.

Escalating disputes in areas from human rights to maritime claims have stoked fears of conflict and destroyed the trust of many European countries and Brussels officials in their south-eastern neighbour. At the same time, mutual dependencies in areas such as trade, migration and counter-terrorism mean neither side is yet prepared for a complete rupture — leaving both stuck in a painful embrace.

A Turkish police officer patrols the dock at Dilovasi where the drilling ship Yavuz, scheduled for dispatch to the eastern Mediterranean, lies moored © Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

After years of an ad hoc approach, European leaders are due to hold talks in March on their Turkey strategy, including new sanctions.

“The entire relationship requires modernisation,” said Ilke Toygur, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute, of the deterioration in EU-Turkey ties. “The issue is, no one has developed a plan B.”

Mr Erdogan has shifted to a more conciliatory tone in recent weeks, partly to attract foreign capital to prop up his nation’s ailing economy. On Tuesday, the Turkish president used a meeting with EU ambassadors to hail plans for renewed talks with Greece and said that he wanted to create a “positive agenda” in Turkey’s relations with Brussels.

But many EU diplomats, scarred by years of spats, are sceptical of a profound change in the relationship. One said he expected the Turkish president’s more aggressive approach to “resurface before March”, when EU leaders make a final decision on the tougher financial sanctions they have long avoided because of Turkey’s economic woes.

“The strange but impeccable logic has been: ‘don’t kick the guy while he’s down, because he might do even crazier stuff’,” the diplomat said. “We have never tackled the structural issues and said to Erdogan: ‘If you keep on behaving like this, there will be economic consequences’.” 

A supporter of the Justice and Development party (AKP) holds an Erdogan poster as others wave the national and EU flags © Mustafa Ozer/AFP via Getty Images

Fraught from the start

The EU’s relationship with Turkey during the Erdogan era has always been complex — and sometimes contradictory.

The 2004 go-ahead for Ankara to become an accession candidate took place in the shadow of Turkish unhappiness with Cyprus’s admission to the bloc earlier that year. The Mediterranean island was allowed to join even though its northern part is under a decades-long military occupation by Turkey that no other country recognises. Talks to resolve the so-called Cyprus question have repeatedly foundered, most recently in 2017. 

But the mutual economic attractions between the EU and Ankara are also obvious — and reflected in a customs union between the two that turned 25 years old last month. Turkey was the EU’s fifth-largest trading partner, export market and provider of imports in 2019, according to official bloc data. The EU is Turkey’s number one import and export partner, as well as the biggest source of inward investment. 

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The ties between the two powers have been deepened by regional upheaval. Turkey has become an important partner in counter-terrorism co-operation, particularly as it is the main conduit for Isis fighters from Europe to move in and out of Syria and Iraq. 

The arrival of more than 1m migrants in the EU in 2015 added another dimension to the links between the bloc and Ankara. The two agreed a deal in March 2016 under which the Europeans agreed to pay Turkey billions of euros to host refugees in exchange for taking back migrants who had travelled from its territory to the Greek islands.

A new dispute over migration last year encapsulated both Turkey’s significance to the EU and the friction between them. Thousands of migrants travelled to the border with Greece in March after Mr Erdogan followed through on a threat to “open the gates” to refugees.

“If Erdogan really wanted to, he could do more [than he did then],” admitted one European diplomat. “We are all very aware of this. European public opinion is very sensitive on this issue and Erdogan knows that.” 

Migrants wait in the buffer zone at Turkey’s border with Greece © AFP via Getty Images

Clashes, spies and proxies

EU member states have also clashed with the Turkish leader, particularly after the 2016 attempted coup against him. Mr Erdogan was angered by what he saw as insufficient European condemnation of the putsch, which left 250 people dead. 

In 2017, the Netherlands barred the Turkish foreign minister and expelled another minister from the country after they sought to campaign on Dutch soil on a constitutional referendum taking place at home. Turkey arrested citizens and dual nationals from Germany — including a Die Welt journalist — as well as from the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria as part of a vast crackdown that followed the failed coup. Several European countries have voiced concern over activity by Turkey’s intelligence service on their soil and the use of state-trained Turkish imams to spy on the diaspora.

Lately France has emerged as Turkey’s main EU antagonist, denouncing Ankara’s activities in conflicts from north Africa to Nagorno-Karabakh. President Emmanuel Macron lamented in 2019 that Nato was suffering “brain death” because of Turkey’s failure to consult its fellow alliance members before launching a big military operation in northern Syria.

Mr Macron has also accused Turkey of “criminal” behaviour in Libya’s civil war, where Ankara has sent weapons and Syrian mercenary fighters to back the UN-recognised government in Tripoli. France has been a supporter, at the very least politically, of renegade general Khalifa Haftar, who triggered a civil war by launching an offensive against the Tripoli administration in 2019. Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan has insulted Mr Macron and called for a boycott of French products over Paris’s response to deadly Islamist terrorist attacks in France last year.

The risk of harder measures

The EU’s most pressing dilemma is whether to take tougher action over Turkish energy exploration in contested Mediterranean waters. Cyprus, Greece and their allies have pushed for so-far modest sanctions to be significantly intensified.

But many European countries remain sceptical of a tougher response. Even the main Turkish opposition Republican People’s party has warned against it. 

Unal Cevikoz, foreign policy adviser to the party’s leader, argued Brussels should have acted “much earlier, not at the level of sanctions but to give some signal to Turkey that this was not going right”. 

“That has not happened and now they’re obliged to take harder measures,” added Mr Cevikoz, who said he had urged European diplomats to steer away from tougher measures for fear that they would “cause Turkey to drift apart from Europe”.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has played a crucial part in stopping the rift between the EU and Turkey from turning into a total rupture. She was the leading architect of the 2016 migration deal. Berlin is also conscious both of the importance of Turkey to German companies and of Germany’s large population of Turkish heritage. 

A big moment will come later this year when Ms Merkel steps down from the premiership she has held since 2005 — the year the now-dormant EU accession talks with Ankara began. The question is whether her successor and other European leaders will still feel that the bond with Mr Erdogan’s Turkey is too strategic to break. 

“This government won’t be around for ever,” argued one senior German official of the Erdogan administration. “Maybe things will change afterwards, maybe they won’t. But Turkey will always be very important — and we don’t want to lose it.”

Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin


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